Monday, September 3, 2012

Japan Trip Day 1 - Tokyo (Tsukiji fish market, Shibuya, Harajuku and Shinjuku)

I know that this blog is traditionally used to blog about food, but I'm going to be including bits about my vacation and about my experience in Japan, too, as a reference for people planning on visiting Japan in the future, or people just interested in Japanese culture. Think of it as a mini travel journal, if you will. I didn't do any research on restaurants and such before going, because I knew we wouldn't have time to go looking for restaurants and would have to make do with what we came across. Also, we spoke minimal broken Japanese,  It made for a pretty interesting trip!

Without further ado, here's the first day of our week-long trip!

Day 1 - Tokyo (Tsukiji fish market, Shibuya, Harajuku and Shinjuku)

Tsukiji fish market

Tsukiji fish market
 We started the first day off by visiting the Tsukiji fish market, the largest fish market in Japan. It wasn't very far from our hotel, so we decided to head there for breakfast.

Fresh fish at the market
Inside the actual fish market, there isn't anything but fish for sale. You'll see a lot of vendors wearing long white coats and thick rubber boots cleaning and cutting up fish inside, and you'll often find fish guts, bones or blood on the floor. Just saying. It's not the best place to be if you're wearing a lot of white, or sandals, for that matter.

Regardless, it was interesting to see the different types of seafood they sold there. Outside the actual market is a smaller market with restaurants and food-vendors, as well as some small tourist shops. Tsukiji also has some of the best and freshest sushi restaurants in Tokyo, with one of the most notorious being Sushidai. We ended up having breakfast at a sushi restaurant a bit further from the market, called Sushi Zanmai.

Sushi Zanmai

We literally wandered into this restaurant, having absolutely no idea what was good and what wasn't.  I only found out after going that this is actually a pretty popular spot for sushi in Tokyo too. Lucky! But even before finding that out, I knew for a fact - after eating here - that this was the best sushi I've ever had in my life.

Tuna bowl
We weren't used to the idea of eating raw fish for breakfast, so we decided to order the bowls, since they contain a lot of rice and would be easier on the stomach. There were two menus, the main menu, which had a bit of English and lots of pictures, and the specials menu, which had some pictures and no English at all. My friend was brave and somewhat inclined to save money, so she randomly ordered something from the specials menu for 500 yen (a little more than $6 CAD). It turned out to be a tuna bowl.

Tuna has three cuts, apparently: lean (akami), medium (chutoro) and fatty (otoro). This particular bowl consisted entirely of akami, so the meat was tougher and chewier, but still very fresh. The tuna was already marinated and therefore salty, so there was no need to add soy sauce. I find that raw tuna in Canada has a slight tinny, metallic taste to it, but the tuna here didn't have that taste at all.

My parents each ordered the chirashi-don, which boasted of 13 different types of fish. Unfortunately, since we couldn't read Japanese, we had no idea what was in it. It contained the usual salmon, tuna, red snapper, octopus, shrimp, squid and salmon roe, though.

Apart from the freshness, there were several things that struck me about this particular chirashi-don. First, there were these sliced up little green vegetables with seeds, which had a slimy texture, but tasted strangely okay. They're called 'okra' (or 'okura'). I was expecting it to be bitter and spicy, like bitter melon, or a pepper, but it was actually fresh, crisp and sweet. The sliminess didn't bother me as much as I thought it would; it's a bit like eating aloe vera.

Secondly, the salmon roes weren't fishy at all. I generally avoid eating salmon roes because I find them too oily, and taste of fish is too overwhelming. However, I was able to eat the roes in this bowl without a problem. They were still oily, but without the fishy taste, they didn't feel as heavy. I'm not sure if they cured it before serving, or if it was just due to the freshness that the fishy taste was gone, but needless to say, I was pretty impressed.

Thirdly, the shiso leaf under the salmon roes is edible. We had no idea at the time, so we just left it as is, but it supposedly has a fresh minty taste to it.

Overall, very fresh and delicious. I don't remember the exact price, but it was around 1500 yen, which is a little less than $20 CAD.

Blue-fin Tuna bowl
You can pick your jaw off the floor and stop drooling now. I know I haven't.

This bowl consists mainly of slices of chutoro (medium fatty tuna), and three thin slices of what I'm guessing is otoro (fatty tuna), which are the lighter-colored pieces. It probably isn't the fattiest cut of the belly, since the meat didn't seem very marble-like, but it was pretty damn good.

The chutoro was soft, juicy and tender, but not oily (as salmon sashimi tends to be). The otoro - if indeed it was otoro - literally melted in your mouth. It rarely happens - if ever - where I'll eat something so good that I'll become dazed for a good three seconds, then close my eyes and moan in appreciation, but it happened. Just thinking about it is making me salivate...

The bed of rice under the fish is vinegared, much like the rice you find in sushi. I usually don't like eating rice, and when eating chirashi-dons in Canada, I barely touch the rice. However, the rice in Japan is really good. It's stickier and more fragrant than our rice (even our Japanese rice), and it goes down more easily. Like you know how whole grain rice is harder to swallow and feels drier than white rice? I feel like our rice is like whole grain rice when compared to Japanese rice.

This particular bowl was understandably more pricey, at 2800 a bowl (around $35 CAD), but it was definitely worth trying at least once. I regret nothing.

Etiquette Notes
Just some etiquette notes, in case some people are concerned about these things when they go to Japan. Because I was a noob, and made lots of mistakes, so now you won't have to!
  • In traditional Japanese restaurants, such as this one, one should take off their shoes before entering the dining area. There are generally little cupboards where you can put your shoes.
  • I know a lot of places say you shouldn't mix your wasabi into your soy sauce when eating sushi. However, it's okay when you're eating sashimi. Mix a little bit of wasabi into your soy sauce (but not so much as to completely mask the taste of the fish!) and dip your fish into it. But...
  • In the end, however you choose to eat your don is up to you. You can choose to eat the fish, then the rice, or both together. Just note that the shiso leaf is edible, and that the roes could have been eaten with it, or we could have wrapped another piece of fish in it and eaten it.
In any case, if you're every around the Tsukiji market, I'd recommend checking Sushi Zenmai out.


After the fish market, we took the city train to Shibuya. 

Transportation notes:
Can I just take a minute to mention how confusing the Japanese public transport can be? There's the train, and the subway, and apparently different lines are owned by different companies. Prices also depend on how far you're travelling. So tickets for different stations are different prices. You also have multiple trains with different destinations stopping at the same platform, so be absolutely sure to get on the right train. Also make sure to choose the right price when purchasing the ticket, and make sure to keep you're ticket on you until you leave the subway or train; you'll need the ticket to exit.

Shibuya is a busy fashion and commercial district in Tokyo. It's also where the famous diagonal crosswalk and giant screen that you see in movies is located. But to us, one of the sites we wanted to see the most was the Hachiko Statue.

Hachiko Statue
If you've watched the movie 'Hachiko', you'll know that the statue is in commemoration of the loyal dog named Hachiko, who waited at the train station for his master to come home from work, even long after his master had passed away. This statue is a popular for youngsters to meet up at. When we went, there was a young group of girl taking a picture with Hachiko, a creeper old man who had photobombed their picture. Huh.

Anywho, Shibuya is good for a spot of shopping, since it has a lot of department stores and shopping centers. There are also quite a few restaurants and eateries around. 

Udon set

For lunch, we stopped by a restaurant whose name I forgot (but it had a rabbit as its logo). It was situated in an indoor commercial district, and had a lane that was filled entirely with restaurants. I've noticed that if there's one thing Japan doesn't lack in, it's restaurants. They're everywhere, from a small noodle shack, to sushi restaurants, to cafes, to Western restaurants. And if you don't have time to sit down for a meal, the convenience stores sell boxed lunches, onigiris and sandwiches, and the train and subway stations have all kinds of places to grab a quick bite.

The waitress tried to explain to us how to eat this, and this is what we understood from it. The five stacked bowls at the top left are five bowls of cold udon (you can get soba too). You can season the noodles with the bonito, grated radish, chopped chives and seaweed flakes from the tray in teh bottom, and drizzle everything with the sauce from the bottle. Everything else is meant to be eaten as side dishes.

The noodles themselves were pretty good. The udon was chewy and elastic, and eating them cold with the toppings was light and refreshing. The side dishes consisted of fish cakes and tofu cakes, and were very daintily-made. The only thing I couldn't get used to was the natto, which is the white bowl in the top left corner. The texture was slimy and sticky, and reminded me a lot of mucus. I can't remember much about the flavour, because I was too busy trying to erase the experience from my mind. Guess I'm not one of those people with a natural penchant for natto...

My dad ordered the udon with some sort of porous tofu, I think. Udon is pretty common in Japan, and I've yet to encounter udon there that I didn't like.

We also ordered an orange sherbet in an orange. It was pretty ordinary as far as sherbets go, but on a hot and clammy day, it's the perfect dessert.

 After Shibuya, we headed to Harajuku for a bit more shopping, where we stopped for some refreshments. Again, I forgot the name of the cafe, but it had a black and white theme going on. This particular drink is the blackberry smoothie. Cold, tart and definitely refreshing after walking in the sun all morning.

Also notice how the Japanese pay so much attention to detail. Everything they serve pretty much looks exactly like the pictures on the menu, or the plastic models they have in front of the restaurant. Like here, they always include the mint leaves (which were actually dehydrated, then rehydrated in water right before serving), and in my case, the little blackberry toppings.

City Hall building

Our next stop was Shinjuku, where a lot of the office buildings and monumental landmarks were located, such as the city hall building.

And the LOVE monument, featured in many dramas.

We walked around the 'red-light' district in Shinjuku, where there were a lot of small restaurants, and some... er... recreational stores.

Gindaco Takoyaki shop
 We found a takoyaki shop, and decided to try it out! Obviously, we couldn't read what was on the menu, so we just pointed to the most basic one, which I'm assuming is the 'original' one.

 The takoyaki were good! Soft and moist on the inside, and slightly crisp on the outside, with chunks of chewy octopus floating around, and seasoned with bonito, seaweed flakes and ponzu sauce. It seemed more flavourful than the takoyaki I've had in Montreal, and definitely less dry.

Fast-food noodle shop
We ended up at a fast-food noodle shop for dinner (though not the one shown in the picture). In Japan, a lot of these fast food restaurants have machines outside where you order, as shown above.

A bit like a vending machine, what you do is put money in and then press the panel with the item you want. The machine will then spit out a ticket with your order on it, which you then give to the waiter or waitress. If you're lucky, then the machine will have pictures on it, but more often than not, it usually only has the name of the dish written on the panels.

Pork Ramen

 After trying to figure out how to work the machine for five minutes, we finally figured it out by watching other people use it. We ended up just pressing whatever pictures looked good. One of the items we ended up ordering was the pork ramen. The noodles were loose and springy, just how I like them. The broth was also quite good. It wasn't the most amazing bowl of noodles I've ever had, but after an exhausting day of walking, it was the best thing we could have had.

We also ordered an udon combo, which comprised of a thick bowl of thick and salty broth, a dry bowl of udon and the toppings given on a separate plate. What you're apparently supposed to do is to dip the udon into the broth and then eat it. I personally found it a bit too salty for my taste, but it was interesting nonetheless.

Bubble tea
And for dessert, we headed back to our hotel and bought some snacks from the convenience store. Can I just say how much I love Japanese convenience stores? They have everything, from onigiri to sandwiches, from boxed soba to boxed tonkatsu, microwavable curry, and giant panda buns. And their selection of drinks! If there was anything I could bring home from Japan, it would be a convenience store.

Anywho, but bubble tea tasted as bubble tea does, except the bubbles were more squishy than chewy. The texture was more like jelly.

Green tea shaved ice popsicle
 Now this. This is a crappy picture, but it was definitely the best popsicle I've had in my life. If you've ever been to China, Taiwan or Japan, you'd know that they're really into these shaved ice desserts. More often than not, the shaved ice would be matcha-flavoured, and it would be topped with sweet red beans and condensed milk. This is basically that shaved ice in popsicle form.

The outside of the popsicle is just regular milk popsicle, but the inside of the popsicle is filled with matcha shaved ice and sweet red bean. Yes, there is ice inside the popsicle. And the topmost part of the popsicle is filled with condensed milk. Mmm... Meiji makes really good popsicles. I really wish they sold these here.

And after that, we passed out from a long day of walking and exploring. Onward to day two!


  1. Hey! I stumbled onto your blog while looking up Sushi Yasu pics/reviews and I'm glad I did because your blog is funny and delicious hahah! I hope you keep up your entries because I've got this bookmarked now and looking forward to more :)

    1. Thank you for checking out my blog! It's nice knowing that people are actually reading it. :) And no worries, there will be more posts to come!